Emory mourns the loss of Braves baseball legend Hank Aaron

Emory Report | Jan. 22, 2021

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Atlanta Braves icon Henry "Hank" Aaron received an honorary degree from Emory in 1995. The university’s archives include extensive materials from Aaron’s career, including the hate mail he received when he closed in on Babe Ruth’s home run record.

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The Emory University community was saddened to learn of the passing of Atlanta Braves baseball legend Henry Louis "Hank" Aaron Jr., an American hero who has been an inspiration to generations, a voice for civil and human rights, and a friend to the Emory community over many years.

Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974, was the recipient of an honorary doctor of laws degree at Emory’s Commencement in 1995. The presentation praised Aaron as both a “home run king” and a “diligent citizen”: “Through perseverance and fortitude, you showed good fences make good targets,” the presentation continued, noting how his “career — in baseball and since — reminds us that, however simple the games of our youth, our collective history has no simple eras.” 

Also that day, Aaron shared his wisdom as keynote speaker at Emory Law’s diploma ceremony, where he gave an inspirational speech that was covered by news outlets around the world.

"I have learned that whenever a community is threatened, all are affected,” Aaron told Emory law graduates then. “Whenever a single human being is humiliated, the human image is cheapened. Whenever a person suffers for whatever the reason and no one is there to offer a hand, a smile, a present, a gift, a memory, a smile again. What happens, something is wrong with society at large. … I am not a pessimist. Neither am I an optimist. I used to say that the choice is ours between a smiling pessimist and a weeping optimist. I prefer to be a smiling optimist." 

In 2014, Emory’s Rose Library opened for researchers a variety of rare original materials on Aaron from its Richard A. Cecil Collection. A former baseball scout, assistant farm system director, and vice president of the Atlanta Braves, Cecil collected Hank Aaron materials as well as hundreds of scouting reports on players of his era. His Aaron materials in the Rose Library include scouting reports that assess Aaron’s potential as a Major League prospect; telegrams between the Boston Braves management and the Indianapolis Clowns, Aaron’s Negro League team; and a copy of Aaron's first contract with the Boston Braves (the team moved to Milwaukee in 1953, a year before his first MLB game with the Braves, then moved to Atlanta in 1966).

The materials were featured the same year in a public exhibit titled, “He Had a Hammer: The Legacy of Hank Aaron in Baseball and American Culture,” that was co-curated by three then-Emory undergraduate students and members of Emory’s baseball team.

The Hank Aaron materials at Emory include extensive materials on his career, but perhaps most notable is the hate mail Aaron received as he closed in on Babe Ruth’s home run record, which Aaron broke when he hit his 715th home run in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium on April 8, 1974. The Emory archive includes about 150 letters from 1972 and 1973, some supporting Aaron as he chased the record, and some with foul and racist language from people angry that he might break Ruth’s record. Some of the letters contained death threats serious enough to trigger an FBI probe; the Cecil collection includes a report on the FBI’s hate mail investigation. The materials continue to bring a wealth of knowledge to researchers and students who aim to more fully understand the barriers and the bravery of African Americans who have achieved greatness.

In 2017-2018, a photograph of Aaron was featured by Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum in an exhibit titled, “’And something magical happened’: Baseball Photographs by Walter Iooss.” The exhibit also featured prominently in the museum’s educational programs for young children, continuing the legacy of Aaron’s inspiration of the next generation. The photo, and the related children’s activities, remain accessible on the museum’s website. 

Also in 2017, the Atlanta Braves and Emory Healthcare announced a new medical partnership that names Emory Healthcare as the official team health care provider of the Atlanta Braves, a partnership in which Emory Healthcare is honored to be trusted with the responsibility of helping the Braves organization perform at the highest level.